Experts hail world's first 'sustainable industrial fishery' for tuna

Skipjack tuna

There is expected to be a surge in demand for ecologically caught tuna, notably from the UK

Support from UK supermarkets to phase out tuna caught with damaging fishing gear could make the Western Pacific tuna the world's first sustainable industrial fishery
We've demonstrated to the world that consumers really want to save tuna

It's a perfect storm, of the positive kind.

UK environmentalists have won commitments from most of the major supermarkets to forsake fish caught with a particularly destructive fishing gear.

At the same time Pacific islanders are taking unprecedented measures to limit the use of the gear on the world’s last major populations of tuna and a company is partnering with them to market their sustainable tuna globally.

One expert calls the simultaneous curbs on the gear and rising demand for fish caught without it a 'unique set of push-pull effects' which could make the Western Pacific tuna the world's first sustainable industrial fishery. The region today produces two-thirds of the world’s tinned tuna, worth over 3 billion pounds.

The FAD that's going out of fashion...

The controversial fishing gear at the centre of this story are known as Fish-Aggregating Devices, or FADs - floating platforms with radio transmitters giving their location.

Built in a multiplicity of sizes and shapes, they are tossed overboard and left drifting in the ocean by ships that use large nets deployed around schools of tuna called purse-seines.

After a few weeks, the FADs typically have attracted vast numbers of ocean-going fish. When the vessels return, they deploy their net around them and haul in up to 100 tonnes of fish at a time.

Because they attract many young, undersized fish, the FADs are blamed for the decline in the numbers of the region’s most tasty and valuable species, the bigeye tuna, whose adult population is estimated to be at 13 per cent of its original size. The yellowfin is also affected. Both are the most prized by sushi lovers after the fast-disappearing bluefin, which swims in colder waters.

The FADs also kill many more sharks, turtles and other marine life with no commercial value than do the nets set around free-swimming tuna of any species, without FADs.

This summer, Greenpeace was able to get nearly all retailers in Britain, the world’s second-largest consumer of tinned tuna, to commit to selling only those caught without FADs.

Meanwhile, the Marine Stewardship Council, which is based in London, is poised to award its certificate of approval to FAD-free skipjack tuna caught in free-swimming schools in the waters of eight tuna-rich Pacific island nations assembled in a group called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu), known as the PNA.

The added marketability the MSC logo provides is expected to motivate fishers to sell them separately, says Bill Holden, MSC’s Pacific Fisheries Manager. 'We expect the certification will be final by September at the latest,' he adds.

A recent study in Britain published in the Journal of Agricultural Economics found that another MSC fish used for fish and chips, pollock, sold for a 14 per cent premium over non-MSC pollock, a strong indication that consumers are willing to pay more for a sustainable product.

Finally, the eight Pacific PNA countries, which have already limited FAD use in their waters for foreign vessels to nine months this year and six months next year, have partnered with a Dutch company to create the Pacific’s own brand of FAD-free skipjack: Pacifical (see The new product is designed to fill the expected surge in demand for ecologically caught tuna, notably from Britain.

Campaigners in Europe, Canada and the U.S. say the increased future availability of FAD-free tuna will make it easier to persuade canners and retailers to shun FAD-caught tuna, as the British have done.

According to a study published this year by the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, sharply reducing the FADs use will allow the mature population of bigeye to nearly triple, says Megan Bailey, a fisheries economist and the lead author of the paper.

This and other measures, including banning nearly all purse-seining since January in a zone the size of India in the Central Pacific, would stabilise the tuna populations in the Western Pacific. The purse-seine fishery there could become the first industrial fishery to be truly sustainable, Bailey believes. 'We have a unique set of push-pull effects here...if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here.'

How the UK led the way

The latest victory in the battle to save the bigeye and the yellowfin came this March in the United Kingdom when the Morrisons chain of supermarkets agreed to ban FAD-caught tuna from its shelves by the end of 2013.

The supermarket joined Tesco, Princes and Asda, which had made similar commitments in earlier in the year. They were responding to a campaign that Greenpeace launched in January that involved writing tens of thousands of letters and sending campaigners in shark costumes to picket supermarkets.   

An initial campaign in 2008 called 'Switch the Fish' got retailers Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer's and Waitrose to stock only canned skipjack tuna caught with a hook and line. The method requires the least subsidies and fuel and employs the most people in coastal communities. By-catch – unintended kills of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin, turtles, sharks and skates – is reduced to a minimum.

In addition, the fish themselves taste better because they weren’t crushed in a big net and were brought in quickly. As a result, the fishermen get a better price for them, whether from canners or companies that send them fresh to Britain. Most of the three retailers' tuna comes from the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, whose government has never sold fishing rights to its waters to purse seiners.

Early this year, Greenpeace returned to the fray with a goal of extending FAD-free tuna to include free-swimming schools caught by purse-seiners the old-fashioned way, by spotting bird attracted by free-swimming schools of tuna.  

'We've demonstrated to the world that consumers really want to save tuna,' says David Ritter, head of biodiversity at Greenpeace U.K. 'We expect that most of Britain's tinned tuna will be FAD-free within three years.'

The rest of the world plays catch-up

In continental Europe, says Sari Tolvanen of Greenpeace in Amsterdam, 'Demand for FAD-free purse-seine tuna is also increasing.' The same is true of New Zealand and Australia. In the United States, Greenpeace campaigners are wondering whether they can replicate the achievements of their counterparts in the United Kingdom.

'The British public is better informed about these issues than the American one,” says Casson Trenor of Greenpeace USA. 'There are a lot of different issues involving creating sustainable seafood systems, and reducing FADs in just one of them.'

In Canada, Greenpeace began a campaign last May against the U.S.-owned Clover Leaf brand, which has nearly half the market. A study found that Clover Leaf sold young bigeye in mislabeled cans. The campaign, says its coordinator, Sarah King, involves newspaper advertising, handing out fake cans full of information on by-catch and even placing small magnets with text on cans in supermarkets.

In 2010, after the PNA countries requested the MSC certification for free-school skipjack caught in their waters, they invited the Dutch company Sustunable to set up a joint venture to market it.

Henk Brus, its owner, had been running a mid-sized canned-tuna trading company called Atuna, known for its data-rich website, since the 1990s. In 2007, he founded Sustunable to market FAD-free tuna. Working first with local Colombian and Ecuadorian fleets, he marketed their products on the European Continent. In the past two years, he has done the same with fleets operating in the waters of Papua-New Guinea. Today, about 20 purse-seiners are supplying Sustunable, says Brus.

He gave a unique feature to Sustunable’s product: a number on the can allows anyone who punches it on the retailer’s website to immediately obtain information on where the tuna in that particular can was fished, including pictures of the vessel and the captain. It also shows in which country and by whom it was processed. So far the service is only available in German.

'The idea is to create a direct relationship between the fisher and the consumer,' says Brus.

A similar number will be applied to the Pacifical logo. Both will be affixed to the top of the can and combined with the MSC seal. 'We expect Pacifical to be selling in about 15 nations around the world by mid 2012,' he says.

We've demonstrated to the world that consumers really want to save tuna


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